Anbar province, home in recent years to the most radical of insurgent groups and some of the country’s worst violence, is facing a fresh challenge. Today, however, the struggle is one of politics rather than guns.
On the back of newly established security the province is now divided over the choice of a new governor following recent local elections.
Ahmad Abu Risha, whose tribal coalition known as the Awakening movement came first in the election (winning eight out of the 29 provincial seats), nominated two members of his list to occupy the post, but both candidates have been rejected by the leadership assembly of his own coalition.
The first candidate to be rejected was Muhammad Qassem. Citing his long period of exile in the United Arab Emirates critics said he lacked the “knowledge of what has happened and of what is going on in the province." Additionally, he is linked to the regime of Saddam Hussein because of his position as head of the chemical section of the regime’s Military Industrialization Commission.
The second candidate to be rejected was Arkan Khalaf Tarmouz, an engineer, similarly because he served as a director of presidential sites during Saddam’s era.
A tug of war has emerged between Sheikh Abu Risha, the most prominent tribal leader, whose name is associated with the defeat and expulsion of al-Qaeda from Anbar, and other prominent members of the province’s tribal movement.
In response to this criticism, Tarmouz defended his nomination, telling Niqash that "35 members of the awakening’s politburo approved my nomination - i.e. the majority - and this is promising, not because of the majority of votes I won, but because everybody is seeking to choose the best and most qualified candidate.”
The dispute is now spreading to other political parties in the province with Sheikh Hameed al-Hayes, leader of the Anbar Salvation Council which won two council seats, also warning against the choice of either of the two candidates.
“I warn and threaten other blocs – and I directly mean by this, Sheikh Ahmad Abu Risha – that if these two persons are nominated to the post of governor, I will withdraw from the council, because they are not qualified or worthy to take over the responsibilities of this position,” al-Hayes told Niqash. “They have lived outside Iraq and their only advantage is that they are close to their leader and they obey him and do what it takes to please him.”
Sources close to negotiators say they expect things to get more complicated, despite daily meetings and deliberations to resolve the matter. Each party is said to be maintaining a firm position over who it will and will not accept.
Many people in Anbar, as well as other political blocs, predict that the current governor, Maamoun Rashid, will in fact stay in office for another term as he is supported by American forces. Some local politicians describe Rashid as “a student who well obeys his teachers.”
Rashid has not denied that he may stand again, saying: "I can’t see in any of the new candidates, with all my personal respect to them, a model of efficiency, professionalism and sense of national belonging.”
“I will propose to the new council, in its first meeting, agreement on the conditions for the selection of the new governor including an excellent background in managing the affairs of the province, especially because the province has 25 to 30 directorates and government departments. The new governor should be knowledgeable of dealing with, controlling and activating security apparatuses. He should love his country and serve his society etc. These are all characteristics that a governor should posses. Selection should not be random and there shouldn’t be a bias towards one party or a certain political entity when the selection is made,” Rashid told Niqash.
Yet Rashid’s opponents say it would be undemocratic if he were to remain governor for another term. "I don’t think that this will happen. If it does, what will be left of democracy?" asked Tarmouz, Abu Risha’s candidate. “Everyone here is sore because of the harsh realities of the province; everybody is seeking to change the current management in order to best serve our people.”
As the dispute continues, the outgoing deputy governor Ali Awad has called on the central government to “interfere to appoint the most suitable person for the post regardless of the political blocs and individuals who won elections.”
For the moment the conflict shows no sign of abating and the people of Anbar are growing fearful that armed groups may take advantage of the political stalemate to reassert themselves in the province.